Leaks, allegations & the media's response
Raymond Snoddy goes in search of a media conspiracy or two amongst the political accusations currently engulfing Boris Johnson
It looks like a purple patch for conspiracy theories, both personal, political and in the media.
Former Downing Street chief advisor, Dominic Cummings appears to have landed one of his blows on his former employer, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, by almost certainly being the source of the “pile of bodies” remark.
That of course was after Number 10 used the newspapers to denounce the “nasty, sexist” leaking Cummings, apparently in personal calls by the Prime Minister to national newspaper editors.
It is also well known that Cummings is close to Michael Gove and his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine. So obviously you can see the conspiracy taking shape before your eyes.
Gove, who has been extraordinary quiet in recent weeks, as Johnson has been battered by a succession of leaks, is possibly the one who would benefit most if the Johnson Premiership were to implode.
The newspaper battle lines have been cast with the prize already in sight – having their man in Downing Street.
In this line of the conspiracy theory, Johnson’s media support is fading away.
The Guardian, the Daily Mirror and The Independent can always be relied upon to highlight the failings of a Conservative PM, and in this case there is no shortage of choice.
The supposed Gove supporters, the Murdoch press and the Daily Mail – a Gove backer by proxy- have all been notable for the enthusiasm with which they have recently laid into Boris Johnson.
The Daily Telegraph, which did more than any other newspaper to create the Johnson myth, remains loyal. The latest example, Sir James Dyson arguing there was nothing improper whatsoever about his call to Johnson over the ventilators, which were never made.
The Daily Express remains on side with its latest splash highlighting – Boris: My ‘Bounce Back’ Britain mission.
There are still nuances however, which will delight the cognoscenti- the differences between the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail.
This week’s Mail on Sunday majored on Downing Street launching “a savage counter-attack against Dominic Cummings last night.”
The most explosive allegation of all against Johnson was surprisingly buried in the continuation of the story on page five, although it did make the page five headline as “The bodies bombshell.”
In the body of the story, the Cummings claim was framed in the form of the Downing Street defence and denial of the allegation.
“Downing Street furiously denies that Mr Johnson made the graphic remark – in which he is said to have ruled out any more “f****** lockdowns, regardless of ‘the bodies’" – in front of what are said to have been ‘shocked’ political advisers and civil servants. Nice.
Did the paper miss the real story or deliberately play it down? You take your pick.
There was no such restraint from the Daily Mail however, which fired both barrels.
“Boris: ‘Let The Bodies Pile High In Their Thousands',” ran the headline over the splash, which said that Boris Johnson would rather see 'bodies pile high in their thousands,’ than order a third lockdown.
The paper carried the Downing Street denial but added that those who claim to have heard the remark were standing by that claim.
The conspiracy theories may be far from perfect, or complete, but it is no longer totally crazy to see a political conspiracy on the move and gathering strength with an uncertain outcome.
The old question to ask is still the best one: Who stands to gain from the leaks and allegations?
It was at this point that the UK’s main broadcasters, who some believe have been somewhat somnolent in the face of the questionable statements of Boris Johnson, are springing into action.
The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston both said they had found witnesses who were confirming the statement, separate from those who have spoken to the Daily Mail.
Two of the sources said they were prepared to swear on oath about what they had heard if the Downing Street denials continued.
The UK’s regulated broadcasters, the BBC and ITV – particularly the BBC - have an institutional problem with a Prime Minister who either makes up the facts as he goes along, has no compunction in uttering falsehoods, or deals in outright lies, depending on your definitions.
There has never been such a Prime Minister in the history of this country before and the broadcasters have had difficulty coping.
They have been, at least partially immobilised, by a traditional desire to respect the office of the Prime Minister.
It has taken them quite a while to realise that such courtesies are no longer relevant in the face of such an assault on the foundations of democracy.
So it was that Green MP Caroline Lucas was allowed to describe Boris Johnson on Radio 4’s Today programme as “a liar on an industrial scale” and someone who has had a “lifelong contempt for the normal rules of behaviour.”
Presenter Nick Robinson sounded a little nervous and tried to move Lucas on, especially since the broadcast was at 6.55am. But at least it was there and the central allegations were made on air.
Lucas was also able to tell of a visit to the Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle this week with other opposition politicians, to complain of the stream of Johnson falsehoods made in the Commons.
According to Lucas, the Speaker felt there was little he could do because it was the responsibility of the Prime Minister to maintain standards.
“The Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the standards of a Minister,” Lucas told Robinson.
She therefore revealed an obvious flaw in the system, that there appears to be no-one, apart perhaps from the MPs of his own majority party, who can properly hold Boris Johnson to account.
On the same programme, a former adviser on Parliamentary interests – the post was vacant for five months until Lord Geidt, the Queen's former private secretary was recently appointed – noted another flaw, the fact that only the Prime Minister can initiate an inquiry into MP’s interests.
As long-time critic of Johnson, his former employer at the Daily Telegraph Sir Max Hastings, put it this week, the Prime Minister has, in effect, rewritten the rules of public office.
There is now a sense of events gathering pace and today, the Electoral Commission has finally launched a full investigation.
The “ scandals” range from the refurnishing of the Downing Street flat and the “piles of bodies" remark, to the undeclared free-use of a villa in Mustique, plus the legal challenge to Johnson’s decision to stand by Home Secretary Pritti Patel over the bullying finding.
There is also the border in the Irish Sea scandal, which still refuses to go away.
As the sharp political observer Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post argues, the water torture of sleeze continuously dripping on Johnson is not going to go away anytime soon.
This time, apart from a few ragged loyalists, the media is beginning to play a full-throated role- whether because of conspiracies or not.